Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Libertarian Black Box

Yesterday I was browsing over a piece linked by Brad DeLong about "Libertarian Ponies". Needless to say, I wasn't exactly expecting it to be commentary that was sympathetic to any of my views. But something struck me about halfway through it, and it's something that hits me reading the vast majority of criticism lobbed at libertarians; the overwhelming impression that such critics are being purposefully obtuse regarding the arguments libertarians actually make.

It's obviously more prevalent as the shade of libertarianism being critiqued deepens. This particular piece seems to extend its reach to the most radical libertarian elements (which is fine). But in almost every case it seems like even the most intelligent critics completely ignore or invert the general framework of libertarian reasoning. I don't like to generalize, but at least most of the more radical libertarians I know make a point to actually understand the ideas and contentions of their political opponents. Why is it that conservatives and (especially) liberals can't seem to make the same effort? Again, people like Brad DeLong are not stupid...not even close. Is it a terrible thing to demand that your detractors actually understand the arguments you make before they dismiss them?

I don't mind having political disagreements, all the way from base ethics to pragmatic application. But the will of many to ignore, evade, or twist the arguments being made (and sometimes not being made) is staggering and almost systemic in presence. How many times can you throw your hands up and ask, "WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT!?!?" in reading a piece before you give up? When you have to do that at the end of almost every sentence I would say that's a sign of a serious disconnect and that it's time to re-evaluate exactly what is going on.

After some quiet thought and reflection, I've boiled my hypothesis down to a mental bosium-strip of sorts:

The Libertarian Black Box

In any kind of basic systems-analysis you can boil complex processes down a simple definition of functionality - the proverbial "black box." The "black box" is simply a way to look at the behavior of a system (by looking at inputs and outputs) without necessarily getting caught up in the why's and how's of the system. So we can view this as the way(s) libertarian arguments seem to be received or interpreted by non-libertarians.

From my experience, the psychological artifact of non-libertarians (at large) that I call the "Libertarian Black Box" has two primary functions.

Function 1: Read in a refutation of means as a refutation of premise or ends

This has to be the most prevalent form of obfuscation or confusion a libertarian will run into when talking to non-libertarians. When libertarians raise consequentialist or deontological objections to a given method to achieve a given goal, often the person in question will reply as if the libertarian doesn't see the initial problem or that they don't support any solution to it...both of which are usually unequivocally false. In trying to lay rhetorical waste to the Anarcho-Capitalist notion that market mechanisms will better direct and produce law enforcement and protection, the author of DeLong's linked piece sarcastically exclaims:

"Now wish that people should, despite that lack of any restraint on their actions such as might be formed by policemen, functioning law courts, the SEC, and so on, not spend all their time screwing each other in predictable ways ranging from ordinary rape, through the selling of fraudulent stocks in non-existent ventures, up to the wholesale dumping of mercury in the public water supplies."

Admittedly, it would be a pretty slamming argument...if radical libertarians didn't believe in rights or their rightful enforcement. But that's not the stance libertarians make. In fact, the whole consequentialist side of their argument demands better provision of these services, and further goes to explain why pseudo-monopolistic institutions, such as the ones we have, are predisposed to providing these services inadequately and poorly. Libertarians, generally, do not pretend these problems don't exist - they simply believe they have a better way, both economically and morally, to handle these problems.

To understand this point a little better, imagine that government claimed a monopoly on the production of TVs. No one else would have a right to compete with the government in this particular industry. Granted, we could choose new managers for this government-run enterprise every few years, but what would the problems be from a developmental and distributional standpoint? What are the well-known downsides to monopolistic control of any industry? How does competition alter incentives and ultimately the path of industry, the emergent relationship between consumer and producer? If we wouldn't expect affordable, quality products from a monopoly what can we expect from a monopoly on the institution of law?

David Friedman writes, in The Machinery of Freedom (p. 132):

"Imagine buying cars the way we buy governments. Ten thousand people would get together and agree to vote, each for the car he preferred. Whichever car won, each of the ten thousand would have to buy it. It would not pay any of us to make any serious effort to find out which car is best; whatever I decide, my car is being picked for me by the other members of the group. Under such institutions, the quality of cars would quickly decline."

At this point I should point out that it's more than acceptable to disagree with Friedman's conclusion here. What's not acceptable is to act as if his contention with the hypothetical production and distribution of cars in his example meant that he didn't want cars to be produced. It's worse than a non sequitur; it's simply dishonest or ignorant.

Unfortunately, the contrarian view of libertarians regarding government purview over all kinds of institutions has been suffering this argumentative fate for quite a while. The classical liberal writer Bastiat makes a clear and concise acknowledgment of similar frustrations in The Law (A Confusion of Terms):

"Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.
We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain."

Function 2: Make a critical claim about a perceived weakness in the proposed system that applies just as much if not more so to the system you defend

This function is often tangential to, or a part of, the first. Although, from personal experience, it's often much more blatant and exasperating. This occurs when non-libertarians are on the offensive, scoffing at and excoriating the simple folly of libertarianism; when, all too often, their criticism applies even more aptly to the system they so vociferously defend. The author of DeLong's linked piece takes the Anarcho-Capitalist notion of private protection to task:

"Now, everyone close your eyes and try to imagine a private, profit-making rights-enforcement organization which does not resemble the mafia, a street gang, those pesky fire-fighters/arsonists/looters who used to provide such "services" in old New York and Tokyo, medieval tax-farmers, or a Lendu militia...Nothing's happening but a buzzing noise, right?"

There are several things to point out with, particularly, the "profit-making" incentive(s) being brought up, in accord to the not-so-free-market nature of many supposed "laissez faire" fire-fighting failures (or even the failures of the quite public providers of such services). An actual discussion of how public vs. private frameworks for such provisions might develop never occurs. Instead we're left with the presumption that failure doesn't or can't happen in the public sphere. Just look at how talk of private protection or the rendering of civil disputes turns to the allusions of thieves and private gangs...the point of which, of course, is to provoke fear of "private crime" emanating from such institutions. We can ignore, for the sake of discussion, the quite private (and often efficient) arbitration and security in the employ of much of modern society already. Does the author truly believe that government and it's monopolistic control of such services is devoid of similar applicable worries and criticisms?

What is a street gang, or the mafia? We think of them more loosely as criminals. But what do they do? They lie to, cheat, rob and murder the innocent, shake people down for protection money, favor some individuals and businesses while suppressing others, extract what amounts to rent payments for land they do not own, and engage in bloody conflict with other such institutions over territory and procedure. Exactly which one of those features, again, does not describe the actions of government as well? In fact, the largest difference between the two conceptions seem to be consent of a democratic plurality and the pretense of legitimacy and just monopoly. If we're going to have a race regarding which group is worse on the scales of theft, murder, detention and/or abuse of the innocent, lying, fortune-building, cronyism, violence, and the generally unilateral prohibition of peaceful, voluntary interaction and movement I'm putting all my money on the state-sanctioned horse.

It's bad enough that someone isn't able to see how the supposedly "legitimate" institution is worse than the ones they've ostensibly pushed into the hands of criminals, but do they really not understand that there is no environment BUT the criminal one for such competitive institutions to exist under the current system? Is it possible to imagine that an actual freely competitive system for such services would produce different results than what we have now? Have we really not learned anything from the "War on Drugs"? Does anyone take seriously the notion that re-legalizing alcohol after prohibition did or would have legitimized the criminal providers who supplied said product in light of the U.S. government's prohibitive policies towards it? Even if we couldn't imagine that competition in protection would develop as easily and peacefully as post-prohibition alcohol production and distribution, does that settle the contentions over whether competition for such protection services produce better or worse results than a monopoly on those services?

Surely we can disagree regarding the conclusion. But are supporters of the state really under the delusion that governments (monopolies on law and protection) aren't responsible for countless grievous atrocities throughout history? Is it a stretch to think private crime, as bad as it is, pales in comparison to such state-sanctioned indiscretions? I don't think it's a crazy notion to consider. And the complete obliviousness towards the actions and nature of government implies some kind of ethical veil on the state; one through which immoral acts committed by the state are not immoral; that somehow the individual with a badge or uniform is not to be held to the same moral standards as the rest of us. As Murray Rothbard correctly notes in "For a New Liberty (Chapter 3: The State)":

"The State! Always and ever the government and its rulers and operators have been considered above the general moral law... Service to the State is supposed to excuse all actions that would be considered immoral or criminal if committed by "private" citizens. The distinctive feature of libertarians is that they coolly and uncompromisingly apply the general moral law to people acting in their roles as members of the State apparatus. Libertarians make no exceptions. For centuries, the State (or more strictly, individuals acting in their roles as "members of the government") has cloaked its criminal activity in high-sounding rhetoric. For centuries the State has committed mass murder and called it "war"; then ennobled the mass slaughter that "war" involves. For centuries the State has enslaved people into its armed battalions and called it "conscription" in the "national service." For centuries the State has robbed people at bayonet point and called it "taxation." In fact, if you wish to know how libertarians regard the State and any of its acts, simply think of the State as a criminal band, and all of the libertarian attitudes will logically fall into place."


  1. "I don't think it's a crazy notion to consider. And the complete obliviousness towards the actions and nature of government implies some kind of ethical veil on the state; one through which immoral acts committed by the state are not immoral; that somehow the individual with a badge or uniform is not to be held to the same moral standards as the rest of us."

    Exactly. I have argued that the authority claims of the state's agents have advanced Not. One. Whit. beyond those made by Filmer.

    The badge, the flag, the uniform, the election result are to be taken as evidence that the bearer is G_d's Anointed (and if one doesn't want to take the word of the Anointed for the anointing, one is invited to take up the questions with the armed goons behind him/her).

  2. It certainly becomes pretty frustrating after a while - the things people will simply dismiss, ignore, or overlook in regards to state-action is pretty incredible.

    It makes me think of the mental knots that become tied in arguments with people like Gene Callahan - who's view seems to be that libertarians' defining of taxation is theft is idiosyncratic. When the definition of theft becomes something like, "When someone, except government, takes something that belongs to you" then who is really the one using an idiosyncratic definition? I actually give most people more credit than that on the matter. I'd like to believe that either there's some disconnect where they've never really thought about it before...or that, maybe, they do see that aggression but simply believe it's justified. Even if they're wrong, those positions seem at least coherent. But to openly acknowledge such actions and hold the actors to completely different moral standards - that's something I still find deeply puzzling.